The Dark Underbelly Of Americana: ‘Kings Row’ (1942)

by Paul Batters

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“I only know that you have to judge people by what you find them to be and not by what other people say they are” – Madame von Eln (Maria Ouspenskaya) 

Every small town has its’ secrets and stories and Hollywood has found no shortfall in material in telling those stories nor directors wishing to tell them. Usually, Hollywood had depicted small towns as idyllic places, where values and morals to be admired where prevalent and family life created a world of stability and normality. This is certainly true in the Andy Hardy series, the then popular Henry Aldrich series and films such as Meet Me In St Louis (1944) and Our Town (1940), which was incidentally directed by Sam Wood. Capra’s films certainly celebrate the small American town, untainted by the complexities of the big city, as well as ‘the people’ characterised as being the ‘salt of the earth’.

Kings Row (1942) stands tall as a tale of an American Midwestern town at the turn of the 20th century, with all the A Grade production values that were a staple at Warner Bros. Directed by Sam Wood (A Night At The Opera, Goodbye Mr Chips, Pride Of The Yankees), Kings Row is a powerful film, with outstanding performances from its’ principal players and a talented supporting cast. Whilst certainly not a forgotten film, Kings Row is often overshadowed by some of the other big releases from Warner Bros. around the same time such as Now Voyager (1942) and Casablanca (1943). It certainly deserves our attention, as it is one of Warner Bros. finest productions and despite the surface themes of romance, relationship, loss and tragedy, there are far deeper concerns that are addressed in the film. At its’ very core, Kings Row is a story that reveals the uglier and darker undercurrent of the American Midwestern town, tearing down the façade of respectability, polite society and propriety to reveal hypocrisy, perversion, familial dysfunction and corruption.  This essay does not aim to avoid spoilers but to discuss these issues and examine their purveyance in the film. (So readers be warned!)

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From the opening scene, punctuated by Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s excellent score, perhaps one of the finest ever written for the silver screen, the focus is on the town. The audience’s focus is drawn to a sign which declares Kings Row is a ‘good town’, one which is a ‘good town to live in and a good place to raise your children’.  The camera moves across tree-lined streets and picket fences before being drawn to the characters. But the inference is quite clear, as Wheeler Winston Dixon points out, that the film intends to be a stinging indictment of American society…and a dystopian vision of the dark underside of Midwestern small- town life’.  

As the audience is going to discover, to go against the small-minded and morally suffocating rules and expectations of society means a heavy price must be paid.

The story has a two-fold focus in terms of the protagonists; specifically the close friendship of Parris (Robert Cummings) and Drake (Ronald Reagan), though it is Parris  with whom the audience connects with first and foremost.  Parris and Drake share a friendship since they were children and though different in demeanour, they are similar in their strength if character.

Parris is a young and gifted student being raised by his grandmother Madame von Eln (Maria Ouspenskaya) whose values and beliefs she has bestowed upon Parris, as well as her love and kind nature. Unbeknownst to Parris, his grandmother falls ill with cancer but she covers it up, not wanting to cause worry for her grandson. Parris, too, is a kind, thoughtful and passionate young man who begins studying medicine with the brilliant yet reclusive Dr. Alexander Tower (Claude Rains). His childhood friendship with the doctor’s daughter Cassie (Betty Field) will eventually develop into love and they pursue their passions despite the doctor’s warnings and Cassie’s growing anxiety. The two will consummate their love, although naturally this is only suggested in the film but the results will have dire consequences for Cassie.

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However, these ‘star-crossed lovers’ are doomed to a greater tragedy than Parris’ initial concerns for Cassie could anticipate. Cassie fears that she is going mad, as her mother did, and it appears that her insanity is not entirely an unfounded fear. As the audience discovers later in the film, Dr. Tower also suspects that Cassie has gone mad.  What follows is a shocking turn in the tale (which incredibly survived the Breen Office), is the murder-suicide that occurs in the Tower household. Cassie is killed and Dr Tower then turns his murderous hand on himself.

Parris is horrified and wracked with guilt that he earlier dismissed Cassie when she declared her fears to him. He also discovers that the authorities want to speak to him but before he races to the Tower house, Drake stops him and goes instead, claiming he had been seeing Cassie. Drake sacrifices his own reputation in the presence of Dr. Gordon (Charles Coburn) the father of Louise (Nancy Coleman) the girl he has been ‘seen’ with. Yet his faux declaration turns out to be unnecessary as Parris discovers that he is the recipient of something he never expected. Nevertheless, it adds further condemnation of Drake’s moral character (or lack thereof) in the eyes of Dr. Gordon.

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Parris will face greater challenges, with the death of his grandmother who, along with the tragedy of the Towers, spurs him to leave the town and seek something greater. Yet Drake also senses that Parris needs to leave and, sharing the deeper sentiments of Dr Tower, does not want to see his friend stay in Kings Row to become a mediocrity, with his potential drowned by the town’s darkness. Parris does leave for Vienna where he will pursue his career in medicine but specifically the new field of psychology.

Drake, will remain in the town and face his own challenges, not the least of losing his family fortune to an unscrupulous banker. Yet it does result in finding something stable and lasting in Randy (Ann Sheridan). The no-nonsense and tough Irish girl comes from the other side of the tracks and her hard-working family accepts Drake without judgment, indicating that the ‘poorer’ part of town has rejected the hypocrisy and double standards of ‘respected society’. 

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Kings Row spans a period of approximately 20 years, from the childhood of the principal characters into their adulthood. Of course, the tale being told is not only that of the people in the town but of the town itself. The divisions that exist in Kings Row are marked not only in the town’s psyche and fabric but by the very physical differences, classically signified by the train tracks. Drake’s ultimate slide from society is marked not only by his financial fall but also primarily by his moving over the train tracks to be with Randy. Ironically, his ‘punishment’ for doing so, is the horrific accident (and unnecessary operation that follows), which will give Ronald Regan his most famous scene in film history and a heck of a line of dialogue.

When Parris does return home, the expectation from the town is that he will set up a practice in Kings Row but Parris is not so sure. However, he will discover something that may keep him there and may give him the peace and stability that has eluded him.

His reunion with Drake is bittersweet and the love that they share is certainly undiminished by time apart. Yet Drake’s problems runs deeper than his physical trauma and Randy is hopeful that Parris’ return may help. The momentous climax is powerful and emotional, not only placing the cherry on top of Reagan’s performance but also reaching a finality for the key characters in conquering their own obstacles and defeating the very forces of the town, which had sought to crush their individuality.

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Stylistically, Kings Row is a dark melodrama, with Gothic undertones and is beautifully shot by legendary cameraman James Wong Howe, whose perceptive eye finds the inner emotions of the characters, as well as the nature of the town. The wide-eyed panic in Cassie is disturbing and her anxiety and terror reflects an undertow of repression in the town. Terrified of her own thought processes, Cassie tries to reject Parris but her love for him initially prevails only to be de-railed by her own dread and the final act of horror that will befall her. The camera focuses on her face, illuminated in the moonlight like a phantom and the accompanying score not only enhances the tragedy of Cassie’s mental state but also foreshadows the final moment of madness to come. Later, Louise will also face mental illness and instability, also impacted on by a cruel and domineering father. Again, the repressive climate of the town, which discourages individuality and demands subservience to what is considered ‘decent society’, has meant terrible repercussions.  Insanity is a long-running convention of the Gothic genre and in Kings Row it seems to be way too prevalent. But more pointedly, the town of King’s Row seems almost totalitarian in its’ societal laws and expectations. Patriarchy may be the most obvious reason for the power system in place but men also fall prey to the claustrophobia of the town’s façade of propriety; Drake pays a heavy price for his individuality and refusal to bow to the town’s societal norms and Dr Tower faces isolation (even if partially self-inflicted).  Parris will declare Dr Tower as a brilliant man whose intelligence and forward thinking is wasted in King’s Row. What compels him to remain in a hick town with such narrow-minded and stifling repression? It takes great strength of character and true principles set into foundations of integrity to withstand the onslaught.

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Certainly the town of Kings Row understands the art of the cover-up – so much so that even the ‘best’ that the town has to offer, i.e. Parris, has learned how to do it. Parris is more than happy to commit Drake’s former flame Louise to a mental asylum, to protect Drake from Louise revealing the truth behind her now-dead father’s operation on Drake. Parris would know full well the horrors of such a committal yet he is initially happy to humour Louise into a false sense that he will help her. In truth, this is not the act of a honourable doctor and our high opinion of Parris is rattled. But it fits perfectly with the very atmosphere of the town. To protect Parris from scandal when Cassie is murdered, Drake is happy to lie that he was seeing Cassie and ruin his own reputation, which he claims is ruined anyway.

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Perhaps the darkest element of the story deals with the secondary characters and the plot device upon which the film will turn and provide Drake’s character arc. The sadistic Dr. Gordon is later revealed to a self-appointed judge and jury within the town, abusing his position as a doctor and committing unspeakable and abominable operations upon those he considers due punishment for their transgressions. The fact that the good doctor is never questioned suggests the nature of the town protecting him and his activities – and it seems that his practice as a doctor is not exactly unseen by others. Parris, when discovering his grandmother is unwell and being treated by Dr Gordon, questions his mentor Dr Tower about Gordon’s reputation, professionalism and practice. The tone in which Parris asks his questions and the nature by which Dr Tower answers certainly suggests that rumours exist and Dr Gordon is whispered about. But Gordon’s abuse is not merely the act of a wayward or ‘mad’ doctor; it becomes the allegory for the abuse of power and authority by those who have it. Gordon is not only a doctor but in some sense a ‘respected’ leader within the town and its’ high society. His wife will certainly not question him and when his daughter threatens to expose him, he suggests how he will deal with her and seems more than ready to commit her.  The power of patriarchy is more than evident. 

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As a result, Drake’s ability to disempower what Dr Gordon has done to him, with help from Parris and Randy, is a great victory over this long-established patriarchy and becomes a moment of courage as Drake takes ownership of his liberation, breaking the imprisonment of his condition.

It is actually quite a feat that Kings Row was made from Henry Bellamann’s 1940 novel in the first place. Upon its’ release, the novel was a massive success, with studios engaging in an intense battle for filming rights. However, turning Bellamann’s novel into a film that would meet the requirements of the Production Code would be extremely difficult. Not only does the murder-suicide occur but also the original motive behind it is far more sinister and darker than what anticipates the heinous act in the film. As critic Tim Dirks points out, ‘Cassie was afflicted with nymphomania, not insanity. Dr. Tower’s diary revealed that the warped doctor had eliminated his wife and then committed incest with his daughter in order to study its psychological effects. He then killed Cassie when she threatened to leave him and go to Parris’. Parris and Cassie are certainly in love and there are allusions that the two are consummating their love. In the film, Dr. Tower’s motives are designed as almost valorous and noble. Parris interprets the doctor’s act as an attempt to ‘save’ Parris from the same fate as Dr. Tower – marrying an unbalanced woman and finding himself locked for life in a small town with small-minded people. Indeed, Parris even calls Dr. Tower a ‘brilliant man’ for his foresight, as well as his genius as a doctor. Murder-suicide is a heinous act and not one of brilliance or courage, yet there is a twisted logic in Kings Row, which has even reached Parris.

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Arguably, these considerations may not necessarily condemn Parris as a character and the difficulties and complexities of situations that we all encounter in life may have to deal with choosing the lesser of two evils. Nevertheless, it may appear that in Kings Row, such choices become very apparent and if the audience looks carefully, a darker and more sinister reality exists behind the picket fences and claims of being ‘ a good town’.

 Kings Row is a superb film which allows the audience to become consumed in the drama and absorbed by the depth of its’ characters. The quality of production typifies Warner Bros and Hal Wallis, then Head Of Production at Warners, knew how to build a picture and shape it to its’ finest results. The pedigree of Sam Wood as director is well known although by all reports he was less concerned with the visual impact of the film (still beautiful by James Wong Howe’s impeccable standards) and more so with the building of the key characters, particularly Parris.

There is a great courage in the production of this film, as already discussed and the more explicit themes and concerns of the novel are still present in the subtle and nuanced development of the story. Ultimately, Kings Row is far more than a melodrama but a revelation of the darkness of some places, where facades of propriety, community and ‘goodness’ are stripped down to reveal hypocrisy and abuse of power. On a larger scale, Kings Row becomes an allegory for the sinister corruption and hypocrisy that may not only exists in our own towns and cities but within our society as a whole. As an audience we learn that there is a price to pay if we care to challenge it, ignore it or even escape it; and we may well ask if that price is worth paying if it means our integrity and sense of self remains intact.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

13 thoughts on “The Dark Underbelly Of Americana: ‘Kings Row’ (1942)

  1. Great review. This is one of my all-time favorite films even if it is hard to watch. I remember watching it the first time and my jaw almost dropped to the floor. It is an incredibly harsh indictment and though a few plot points had to be changed from the novel, obviously, many others are there even if only alluded to.

    While the relationship between Dr. Towers and his daughter was changed (which doesn’t really bother me, the whole thing is still shocking), I think it is made quite clear the poor Louise is both physically and mentally abused by both Dr. Gordon and his wife. On top of that the look in Dr. Gordon’s eyes before he beats his daughter speaks of something more. It isn’t spelled out, but it is there. Dr. Gordon is an insane sadist who literally stops at nothing.

    Every actor is in top form here, and I don’t want anybody to say again Ronald Reagan wasn’t a good actor.

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    1. Thanks Margot! I agree that Kings Row is a superb film and as you point out the whole cast is tip top, and agree that Ronald Reagan really shows his acting chops in the role of Drake. I was also floored by the murder-suicide when I first saw it and I still am every time I watch it, even though I know it’s coming. The calm before the storm is eerily caught on film by James Wong Howe and I love his camera work in this film as well.

      I am also shocked by Parris’ willingness to commit poor Louise, particularly in light of the terrible suffering she undergoes and the fact that she turns to him for help. For me Dr Gordon is an a abominable person who represents the deeper ugliness of those who abuse power. His family are there to be ruled and terrorised into submission, not to be loved. And yes how GOOD is Coburn in the role! What a film!!

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  2. I forgot, if we know Charles Coburn only from his jolly and jovial roles he usually played, we’re in for a big surprise. The entire cast is tops.

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    1. Thanks Zoe! I really appreciate your kind words but I hope I didn’t spoil it too much for you either. It’s impossible to discuss it from the point of view I was taking without dishing out some spoilers. But I think you will still love the film – I am ALWAYS moved by the film and there’s a personal edge to it as Parris’ grandmother and their close relationship reminds me so much of my own grandmother (who like Maria Ouspenskaya had Russian blood – well, from her father’s side). The film score is so beautiful and it’s shot with a powerful quality by James Wong Howe. As you said Zoe, what a cast! And what a film!

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  3. You have an interesting take on this film. My take on it will either expalin why I like yours or it will completely confuse you. I’m of the age where I knew Reagan the politician before I knew Reagan the actor. Politics notwithstanding, I was a fan of both. The problem was that both those Reagans tended to be “larger than life” figures. In the case of King’s row, while Reagan was a pretty good actor, the role of Drake required a “great” actor; one that could sell me on the despondence of the post-injury Drake.

    To be fair, that’s not a shot at Reagan. I probably couldn’t buy the ultra-macho Clark Gable in that role. The point is that “as is,” King’s Row is a truly great film. But with that one bit of casting for the role of “Drake,” meaning a lead who I can buy as a “feel-sorry-for-myself-apotamus,” this film easily becomes a classic along the lines of “Best Years Of Our Lives.”

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    1. Oh I think you make a very interesting point and I totally get what you’re saying. I also don’t see Reagan (removing him from the politician’s persona) as a ‘great’ actor but certainly a good, solid actor – though I feel in and likewise don’t think the likes of a Gable would have worked. But I still think in the big moments that Reagan has in the films, he does rise to greatness if only temporarily. Your nice turn of phrase regarding the nature of Drake’s character does have some parallels with Homer Parrish, not completely of course, and so yes the casting is crucial. As a result, It. certainly is a classic film.

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  4. Thank you Paul for this excellent, detailed examination of an equally excellent film. As you rightfully indicated, “Kings Row”, while not necessarily forgotten, should be better known; I discovered the film in the 1980’s, when it was first released on videocassette. A forerunner to stories such as “Peyton Place”, I suspect that “Kings Row” might have been something of a shocker for the audiences of the time, more accustomed to an idyllic portrayal of small town life, While the some of the more unsavoury aspects of Henry Bellamann’s novel, such as incest, were disallowed by the Production Code, there remained plenty of deliciously dark elements, all set to Erich Korngold’s majestic music, to fascinate and disturb contemporary audiences. (I have read that Bellamann originally planned “Kings Row” as the first part of a literary trilogy. He died before completing the second novel “Parris Mitchell of Kings Row”, which was completed by his wife; focusing on Parris’s work as a psychiatrist, the novel lacked the enticing darkness of “Kings Row”.)

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    1. Thank you Robert! I think ‘Kings Row’ is a heck of a gutsy film for its’ time but one that still packs a punch.It must have been TERRIBLY shocking at the time of its release and I’m guessing that audiences aware of the book would have seen further into the film as well. Korngold’s score never fails to move me and is superb in its’ underpinning the emotion of the film.

      I actually have a copy of ‘Parris Mitchell of Kings Row’ but never come around to reading it and it is piled up unceremoniously with a whole bunch of other books. I perhaps should read it!

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  5. Excellent review of a great movie! Yes, a surprisingly dark Americana that anticipates things like Peyton Place, TV’s Falcon Crest and Dallas, even Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. Warners’ 1942 small town drama In This Our Life was pretty nasty too, so kudos to the studio for deconstructing Andy Hardy’s Carvel. Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s brilliant score is a big plus (it was the inspiration for John Williams’ Star Wars). Again, it was a pleasure to read your review of one of my favorite movies!

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    1. Thank you so much Eric. I agree that it’s a foundational film in critiquing the American town and the myth built up around it. I think actually all places have both a brightness to their story as well as a darkness in the tale. The films and tv shows you mentioned would certainly have been inspired by those steps taken by Kings Row. Actually been a while since I’ve seen In This Our Life and never thought of it in that way so must see it again. I wasn’t aware that Korngold’s score inspired Williams in that way! And thanks so much for your words as well!

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